Miles, Mulligan and more

On February 10, I will again be performing Miles Davis' classic The Birth of the Cool organized and led by my dear friend Thomas Helton. This concert will be slightly different, however, in that it will feature three new arrangements by yours truly written specifically for the nonet. In addition to that, the second half of the concert will feature the various incarnations of the famous Gerry Mulligan Quartets.

Birth of the Cool
Birth of the Cool

This concert is being produced by Richard Nunemaker for the Houston Tuesday Music Club on Sunday, February 10 at Emerson Unitarian Church at 4pm.You can hear Thomas, Richard and myself discussing the concert on KUHF's "The Front Row" by clicking here.

Of the new arrangements, I chose to write three features, one each for alto saxophone ("Opus de Funk"), trombone ("Lament") and baritone saxophone ("Ghengis"). Here's a playlist of the concert, in backwards order:

"Opus de Funk" is really just a transcription and re-orchestration from the 1959 album, Art Pepper + Eleven: Modern Jazz Classics. While the original Birth of the Cool selections are wonderful, there isn't a straightforward blues among any of them. This recording has long been one of my favorites, with plenty of room for the alto to blow through the blues. That, plus the excellent arrangement by Marty Paich make this a great pairing to the original album (and great practice for me to learn how the unusual nonet instrumentation can be handled).

"Lament" is trombonist J.J. Johnson's well-known jazz ballad. I wanted to pay tribute to Johnson's presence on the original recordings and feature his talents as a great writer, since this ballad is truly one of the best written in the idiom. My arrangement sought to capture the "Gil Evans sound" heard most prominently on "Moon Dreams". There were many things to consider here: where to draw the  line on using dissonance, Gil's careful placement of voicing, the development of the main theme throughout the piece, and so on. It was a real challenge, as students of Gil Evans' style are surely aware.

Finally, I chose "Ghengis" from Gil's Guests written by the late, obscure multi-saxophonist Gil Mellé. Mellé was a bit of a renaissance man in modern music, he dabbled in various ensemble sizes and structures, had a strong interest in atonal music and unusual forms and was even a featured painter on several jazz LPs of his peers in the late 1940s. "Ghengis" is an unusual tune with an unusual construction. The melody itself is raw and atonally inclined, with several instruments providing a (somewhat) pointillistic melodic shape. While the tune is just a head arrangement, there is an obvious tape splice to include the improvised solos before returning to this head to end the piece. Mellé's baritone sax is front and center, however, and the original arrangement made for a great place to jump off and experiment with combinations and sounds within the nonet.

Enjoy the music and I'll see you at the concert!

The newly discovered William Savory recordings

Wow! It's an exciting time to be a jazz fan (especially if you're a jazz historian) because a HUGE amount of treasures from the 1930s and 40s has just surfaced in New York. William Savory's personal collection of jazz discs total is well over a thousand and feature several extended and (most importantly) LIVE performances by the most notable figures in jazz history. The chance to be able to hear recordings by several jazz masters in their prime in a live setting is very rare for this time period, so you can imagine my excitement. Savory worked as an audio engineer in New York City and recorded radio broadcasts that were previously lost to the ages, but have now been generously donated by his heirs for restoration and digitization. Luckily, The New York Times has been reporting all the latest news in a frenzy.  You can read the full story there.

Also, check out this great interactive feature.


Let it Snow, Caroling in the Heights on 19th Street

Well, it's been a week since (what just may be) our annual snowfall here in Houston. Personally, I enjoyed the day and took some time off to walk around in the snow while it lasted. A good friend and I even got together that evening to play Christmas carols and some other tunes on 19th Street in the Heights for their annual "Holiday on 19th" celebration. We a blast playing for strangers in the holiday spirit and attracted quite a crowd of singers and dancers. Unfortunately, the overall turnout was a bit down from its usual commotion. I guess people didn't want to risk it out there on the roadways. Oh well, better safe than sorry, I suppose...

I hope everyone had a great time nevertheless, and a wonderful holiday season. Merry Christmas!

Moores School of Music: Collage 2009

Last Thursday evening (9/10), the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston held its annual Collage program for the beginning of the school year.  This is an event where every department within the music school is showcased and serves as a preview of things to come for the semester.  The Jazz Orchestra was scheduled to begin promptly at 7:30, and at 7:28 a fire alarm tripped!  This delayed the show AND forced the crowd of hundreds outside until the premises was declared safe by authorities.  Gheesh!  Talk about your feats of aleatoricism!  John Cage would have been proud.  The review below is from the university's daily paper, The Daily Cougar.

Photo by Pin Lim

Rousing melodies engage crowd

By Christina Hildebrand, Monday, September 14, 2009

Even a highly sensitive fire alarm could not prevent Collage 2009 from introducing students to the Moores School of Music’s delightful fall schedule.

The alarm went off shortly before the concert was scheduled to begin, leading to a mass evacuation of the Moores Opera House. The show resumed, however, at around 7:42 p.m. Thursday.

The delay did not dampen the spirits of the audience or performers, as the concert was a success.

Moores School of Music Director David Ashley White joked about the ordeal, saying that the event was “censorship.”

White also said last year’s show was cancelled due to Hurricane Ike.

The concert was a preview of the many ensembles at the Moores School of Music and the concerts they will participate in during Fall 2009.

The MSM Jazz Orchestra, under the direction of faculty member Noe Marmolejo, opened the show with an excellent rendition of Phil Kelly’s “The Refrigerator.” This piece included a dashing trumpet solo that gave the selection edge.

Other great moments from Collage 2009 included Howard Hanson’s “Serenade,” performed by faculty members Jennifer Keeney (flute) and Timothy Hester (piano). Keeney made beautiful usage of vibrato on this slow, soothing piece.

One of the highlights of the evening was the world premiere of the mini-opera comedy, “Review: A Satire, An Opera, A Party.”

The mini-opera comedy starred vocal performance alumni Steve Uliana and Andrew Papas, vocal performance graduate students Jennifer Noel and Jack Beetle and vocal performance senior Kristopher Herron.

This segment was filled with Seinfeld-esque gags and included a joke that is common to the hit television show The Office when Beetle’s character said, “That’s what she said.”

After the mini-opera concluded, UH’s Concert Chorale took the stage with their hilarious rendition of the overture to “The Barber of Seville” by Gioachino Rossini. Each vocal section of the chorale imitated the instruments used in the piece, creating interesting and amusing sounds.

The audience clapped at the command of MSM Wind Ensemble Director David Bertman during Karl E. Kings “Barnum and Bailey’s Favorites.” To conclude the evening, Bertman directed the Spirit of Houston Cougar Marching Band with the upbeat, rhythmically driven “Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa.

During the piece, many audience members showed school spirit by flashing the Cougar Paw.

If Thursday’s exciting performances were indicative of what people should expect, the Moores School of Music is set to have a great semester.

FAQ: Hiring musicians

Hiring live musicians can be tricky - especially if you have never done it before! In my attempts to both educate the general public and promote the merits of live music, I’ve decided to compile an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) that I have encountered over and over again in this business. This is designed for you, the non-musician and potential client, to read and consider before deciding to hire live musicians for your next big event. Also, I’ve decided to categorize the FAQ into a “What should I ask myself?” section and “What should I ask the person (or group) I’m hiring?” section. I hope you find this useful!

“What should I ask myself?” Things to consider before deciding on live music

1) What type of event do I want? What overall mood do I want for my event?

Whatever the occasion, live music can give your guests the experience you desire - but you have to know what you are looking for first. Do you want an upbeat, swingin' reception or a moody, soulful dinner set? Too often, event planners don't think about what they would like from an event and end up trying to direct the band during the event, leaving them no time to enjoy their party. Know what mood you want to set and let the professionals you hired take care of the rest!

2) Where am I having my event take place? Local or out of town? Indoors or outdoors? Do the musicians need a stage? Is there a convenient way to load and unload equipment?

This is one of the most important, but least remembered parts of booking live music. If your event requires musicians to travel out of town, then their price quote will certainly reflect that travel time! Also, there are too many things that can go wrong while traveling to ensure that everyone will arrive on time. Maybe it would be best to hire musicians from the area that you will be traveling to in order to save money, in addition to the fact that those musicians already know the area well and (hopefully) won’t get lost.

For events that are outdoors, you must first consider the climate and type of instruments that you want outside. This is a big factor for classical instruments such as strings and woodwinds. Humidity and extreme temperatures can put a lot of stress on the wood of those instruments. If you insist on having music outdoors, most musicians will require that you provide a covered, cool and shady area for them to perform under.

Finally, it’s time to weigh the venue capabilities against the size of of the ensemble that you want to perform for your event. If you want a small three-piece group, then this is normally OK in most any venue, but trying to fit a 16-piece big band into a small space meant only for 3-5 performers can be problematic!

3) What is my budget?

This is another important one. Having a rough idea about what you are willing to spend before going into this can save you a lot of headaches and frustrations when trying to book a specific act. As one agent I know always puts it, “Expensive flowers and food are great, but they don’t sing and dance.” In other words, it’s important to prioritize what you want out of your event. More than likely, you and your guests won’t be talking about the dessert in five years, but you’ll certainly remember when the band played your favorite song as a request. Be willing to spend the necessary money on a quality act if you have decided to have live music. This isn’t the area to try and save money!

4) Should I use a talent agency or hire a group directly?

You always want to have recommendations, references and testimonials on your side. A safe bet is to hire through an agency, as they thrive on this system. However, I would personally recommend hiring a band based upon good reviews from people you trust. The bottom line is this: Make sure that you are able to hear the music before you commit to anything. Good recommendations are still opinions, and your tastes may differ from another person’s.

Furthermore, if you should encounter any difficulties in communicating with your potential musicians leading up to the event, that should set off a red flag in your mind. If they are already difficult to deal with before the event, then how can you really know what to expect when the big day arrives? Good music may be left up to personal tastes, but bad business practices are universal. Be aware before you sign any contracts!

“What should I ask the person (or group) that I’m hiring?” Things to know about live music for the uninitiated

1) What is your instrumentation? What style of music do you play?

For the non-musician, this can be tricky. Instrumentation is the group of instruments within a given ensemble. Do you want strings, horns or just an acoustic guitar? This guide from the New England Conservatory does a great job to explain each instrument family and their applications for different genres and styles.

2) Do you have a website or any demo recordings?

Hopefully any act that you decide to hire is professional enough to have something put together to sell themselves to potential clients. If they have no packaging readily available, then it’s probably best to move on. Try to deal only with professionals.

3) What equipment do you provide? What equipment do you need?

Depending on the type of music and instrumentation, a musical group’s needs can vary dramatically. For instance, if you decide to hire a classical ensemble for a wedding ceremony, usually nothing will be needed due to the fact that classical music uses all acoustic instruments. Generally, no amplification will be required for this, but if it is in a large hall, then you may want to consider a microphone and PA system. Usually, the biggest concern for acoustic instruments is in regard to the piano. Will there be one provided at the venue? If so, is it in good working order? Is it in tune? Otherwise, the piano player may need to acquire a keyboard, which then requires electric power.

On the flip side, a rock band will need LOTS of power for guitar, bass and keyboard amps, their lighting system (if they use one) and the PA system for all microphones for other instruments, including vocals. Most professionals will provide this equipment, but if you need to rent any of this equipment for your own event, then the price tag just went a little higher.

4) How long are your sets? How long do you need for a break?

Every musical group needs a break, usually followed by one hour of continuous playing. My standard rule is that a group requires one 15-minute break per hour played. Of course, this is all contingent on the time line and schedule of the event. Things ALWAYS stray from the plan, but it’s important to keep a loose schedule in order.

*Another point to consider: Will the musicians need a break area? Do they need to be fed? If the event is four hours or longer, these things need to be provided. Any etiquette book will suggest the same answer - treat your musicians like guests. Make sure to ask if background music can be provided while the musicians rest. It should be no problem for them to provide some tunes for you while they break!

5) Do you have a contract? Do you require a deposit?

Contracts are good. You’ll know that you’re dealing with a professional group when you encounter a well-written contract. However, make sure that you read it over well and look for any funny stipulations. For instance, if the band has to cancel at the last minute or even worse, doesn’t show up, will you get your deposit back? Most of the time this isn’t a problem, but I still urge people to be cautious about such things.

As far as deposits are concerned, they are a way for any group to put your event’s date down in ink. This means that your event is now officially in the gig calendar, and is a guarantee on your contractual promises to hire said musicians. Deposits are usually required for larger ensembles that require extensive legwork by a manager to book, so this is a very necessary step. It simply means that your event’s date is now set in stone, but (as I stated above) be sure to read the conditions on how to get your deposit back in case of a screw up on their end.

6) Do you take requests? How much advance notice do you need to prepare a certain song?

Most bands will take requests. However, each band knows a limited number of songs off the top of their head. If you REALLY want a particular song to be played (such as a first dance) then you need to tell the band leader as soon as possible. There are many things for a group to consider when learning any new song, so they need time to work it out. A minimum of two weeks before the event is a sufficient amount of time for any ensemble to get a new song together.

You may encounter some unforeseen roadblocks, however, such as paying an additional fee for your song to be played. This varies depending on the band, and each group has their own reasons as to why they need to be paid more to learn something new. Also, if a band has a song list available for you to view, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they can play all 5,000 songs at any given moment. Instead, these are the songs that they are capable of playing with some advance notice.

Here are some other helpful links: Top Tips from Soho String Quartet: Your Complete Guide To Hiring Musicians New England Conservatory: A Helpful Guide to Hiring Musicians Oberlin Conservatory: Hiring a Musician Made Easy How to Hire and Select a Music Ensemble Suggested questions to ask Musicians before Hiring